Monday, July 24, 2006

Awaiting The Perils of Urban Success


During a talk I gave last week about Philadelphia's strange conjunction of a condo boom and a planning vacuum, one questioner asked whether I thought the city's new affluence would drive out middle and low income residents. I don't believe Philadelphia's overall housing costs are there yet, although obviously such things as school quality, safety and public amenities play an important role when people decide where to live. I think it's fair to say that the boom has been very, very good for Philadelphia. While housing costs have certainly risen in Center City and the neighborhoods that ring the core, there are still acres and blocks to go before Philadelphia runs out of affordable housing.
Still, the possibility that American cities will become the exclusive playgrounds of the rich - a phenomenon dubbed "inversion" by demographers - is something writers in other affluent centers are increasingly starting to fret about. There have been several good articles on the subject recently. The one by Alan Ehrenhalt in Governing suggests that the raging condo boom and high real estate prices in cities like Vancouver could ultimately drive out offices, commerce - and jobs. Janny Scott's piece in the New York Times this weekend focuses more directly on the rich displacing the poor. Meanwhile, Christopher Hume in the Toronto Star worries that rich cities will suck up all the tax resources. In France, inversion has already come to pass in Paris, where the poor are relegated to grim housing and inconvenient commutes on the periphery. Perhaps we could dub the phenomenon, if it ever comes anywhere near Philadelphia, the Paris Syndrome?

17 Comments:

Blogger rasphila said...

This is a serious issue for the long term as well as the short term because we can't go on building suburban sprawl and depending on the private car indefinitely. If we do, fuel prices will damage the economy and climate change may kill us. We need cities where everybody—rich, middle class, poor—can live because well-designed cities are one way to make life more sustainable. The kicker here is well-designed. Philadelphia has no good overall plan (essentially, no plan at all), as we know. But even in cities that have good plans, climate change alone has to mean changes in how we lay out places and live in them.

If the climate scientists are right, there's not a lot of time left. We really have to start making these changes today, or at least as soon as possible.

Our family lives in a middle-class neighborhood (lower-middle class, actually) and has no plans to move. But our house is paid up, and the major problem we foresee is a sharp rise in property taxes if the city government doesn't coordinate tax rates with the new assessment system. That could affect everybody and put a lot of pressure on the middle class if it's not handled well. Which to my mind is yet another argument for better planning and coordination.

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While it's true that Philly's far away from having worry about "inversion," the problem is quite clearly present in CC and surrounding neighborhoods. I don't know if the poor were forced out of those neighborhoods or moved out of their own accord (and it doesn't seem like many people are interested in finding out), but nobody will argue that an individual/family making the median income for Philadelphia can afford to buy a home there now, or even rent, in most cases.

Conventional American thinking seems to go "if the problem won't become a crisis for several years, we forbid anybody from even bringing it up." However, I would argue that now if the time to put thought into it and shape the future development of the city into something more equitable. Why always be scrambling to avert a crisis?

It'll be hard to find a perfect solution, but lots of options, like several property tax reform proposals (including land-value taxation) have been floating around for a while with little to no action on any of them (except maybe Jannie Blackwell's proposed referendum to demand that the BRT continue using its current broken system for the forseeable future).

3:55 PM  
Blogger Ruby Legs said...

uggh, the Magnolia bakery - the bane of every West Village resident who is forced to clean up the detritus left littering the streets by the hordes of dopes willing to pay upwards of $4 a pop for a cupcake.

5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’m going to have to disagree with you about housing being affordable in Philadelphia. While I don’t think that we’re on the verge of an inversion, or will be in the near future, Philadelphia’s case is much different. If you just look at prices, things may appear to be affordable, but when you take into account that the vast majority of the housing stock in this city is run down and in need of major renovations (new roof, plumbing, electric, sheetrock, etc.), then these houses automatically become unaffordable for low- and middle-income people. With renting, you have the same run-down conditions for places that people of low- and middle-income could afford, and with the run-down conditions, the heating and cooling costs are much higher due to poor insulation, bad windows, etc., effectively driving the true costs of renting up. And when you look at the neighborhoods that are “affordable,” they often lack basic services (grocery stores, doctors’ offices, etc.). With an expensive and ineffective public transit system, and the cost of owning & maintaining a car in the city being so high, getting around can be a challenge. Not to mention that many of these “affordable” neighborhoods are dangerous, whether it be from crime or hazardous waste from industry. Bad schools and an ineffective city government make it so that middle-income families can’t afford not to leave, and the poor are just stuck.

11:39 PM  
Blogger mickeytwin said...

I am having trouble understanding your choice of a photo for this post. Four white women gorging themselves on fattening baked goods in front of a famous New York bakery?

10:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You need to work on your links. You link to the Governor article twice instead of the nytimes, and all 3 links include an extra "http//" which makes them invalid.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Eh Nonymous said...

Echo 12:11 p.m. Anonymous's comments about the links - please fix, by removing spare HTTPs and otherwise checking that the link goes with the right URL.

Also, Philly already has lots of reverse-commuters. Check the R5 in the morning - how many Philly residents (who often don't own cars) are riding out towards the Main Line in the morning, because their office has fled there, leaving behind Philly's high property and business taxes?

Soon, there may be an outbound crush in the a.m. (as there already is an inbound crush at night).

Me, I'm going to go with Philly Carshare, and try to keep walking to work.

12:29 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

all 3 links include an extra "http//" which makes them invalid.

Blogger inserts the "http://" when you add a link using the Blogger html editor. If you forget to delete this bit of code before pasting in a link, you get the duplicate "http://". This, at least is what happens using Firefox. I'm not sure what happens using other browsers, so the problem may be limited to Firefox. In any case, the extra code problem is easily fixed, but you have to remember to take care of it.

12:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think what she’s referring to with the photo is the aristocratic Marie Antoinette, “let them eat cake” ownership society mantra of the current political and business establishment, which seems to be more and more evident in the United—I mean Divided—States of America, where the middle class begs for crumbs and the poor are ignored.

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even worse than having to reverse commute on the R5 is getting a great job offer in Horsham and having the choice of either a 1+ hour commute (either by car or transit) or turning the offer down. What the heck do people who take these jobs do, sell their home in Kennet Square (or wherever) and move out there?

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think Philly will have a Paris syndrome... Although we do have a New York Syndrome... How can a city that is 3 to 4 times as expensive as Phiily create so many jobs in the last 8 - 10 years; about 150,000 or so. Is this the difference between Bloomberg's leadership vs. Street. Philly has created about 1,000 well paid jobs and about 5,000 food service jobs.

9:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey...the poor still have the 200,000 homes in the NE left to destroy..that will take years.

10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

SEPTA is not that expensive, just poorly run. And I'm not sure that the whole conspiracy theory establishment "ownership" society is relevant. the whole coutnry has an affordability "crisis" that is misleading. there is a debt crisis. Prices are driven up using debt that people may or may not be able to afford because the true cost of that debt has been skewed downward by Greenspan's easy credit and foreign central banks willingness to buy our government debt despite the looming fiscal crisis facing our country. It's all connected. t any rate, the housing stock in philadelphia has a long way to go before it runs out, what we need is a city that can manage the things they are supposed to...roads, crime, and schools. As for the issue generally, I think a alrge part of the problem is the concentration of power and influence in relatively few centers. Are we happier commuting an hour to work to Dc because we can't afford it or would be be just as happy in cleveland or philadelphia? there are many underutilized cities just waiting for people with vision to revive them. sure, it's not new york, but you can go to the opera and afford a house.

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know I came off as some sort of leftist with the comments I made about housing not being affordable and about the aristocratic “let them eat cake” ownership society spiel. Far from it, at least not in the typical sense. But it’s true, not some sort of conspiracy theory. I don’t know if you just like throwing the whole “conspiracy theory” thing around when you don’t agree with someone, or you just don’t pay attention to the political and economic situation in the country. Don’t believe me? The president has been promoting the “ownership society”—his words, not mine—for his entire presidency. He also gave a speech at an $800 a plate fundraiser in October, 2000 where he said, “This is an impressive crowd—the haves and the have mores. Some people call you the elites. I call you my base.” Anyone paying attention to the news, whether it’s TV, newspapers, blogs, etc., would have heard this. You know, the whole social security privatization, tax cuts, etc. (which I don’t totally disagree with, just the way it’s being handled). There’s no conspiracy, so there’s no conspiracy theory.

I agree that there’s a debt crisis in the United States, and that’s a big problem. Some of it’s driven by circumstances and some of it’s driven by people living beyond their means, but that’s getting off track.

And I didn’t say the housing stock was running out, just that it’s run-down. I was just pointing out what is being overlooked when you determine affordability. Most of the “affordable” housing needs major—if not complete—renovations, adding costs anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000 at a minimum. Add that to a house that costs $120,000 - $180,000 and it is not affordable for lower and middle-income people. I agree with you when you say the city needs to focus on the basic services—crime, schools and infrastructure, etc., as well as the concentration of power—both political and economic—being in so few hands.

And as far as Septa goes, it is expensive, if not for the fares, then for its inefficiencies. Example: most low- to middle-income people are hourly wage earners. Septa consistently has problems with being on time. It stops running early, and some days doesn’t run at all on some routes. Now if you show up to work late, you lose money. The way time clocks/time sheets work, you get paid for every fifteen minutes, and exactly every fifteen minutes—no more, no less. Show up late too often, you get fired. So what can these people do? Show up an hour early so they don’t miss their train/bus? Isn’t their time valuable too? And then Septa goes on strike every now and then, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes not, leaving people stranded, unable to get to work, grocery stores, doctors’ appointments, etc. On top of that, if these people lose their jobs because of Septa, or just because the jobs that low- and middle-income people have usually have high turnover rates, and with the city lacking jobs in any pay scale, it only adds to the financial instability. This is why the city is losing its middle class. They’re leaving for greener pastures, either in the suburbs, or exurbs, or dare I mention Phoenix or San Antonio, or some other city in the sunbelt where they can buy or rent at much cheaper prices and the housing stock is new or newer and in much better shape. I know people are going to say that these places have no culture, and the architecture isn’t as nice, and other smug, pretentious crap like that, but the fact of the matter is that people trying to get by don’t have time or money to take in all this culture.

And about the 200,000 houses in NE Philly that poor people are going to destroy—poor people don’t destroy these houses. H.U.D. destroys these houses, because they only look at income and how many kids you have, they don’t look to see if you’re some sort of a junkie or if you should even have kids in your care.

There’s a lot the city could do, but probably won’t, like cutting off all or at least most unessential services and getting rid of all pet projects so they can cut all taxes, improve and build new infrastructure, collect all back taxes and fees—something the city neglects to do—so that everybody pays their fair share instead of milking the city dry. They can also end all hand-outs. And instead of having higher property taxes for people that keep their properties nice, they could raise taxes on run-down and vacant buildings, as well as vacant, unkempt lots, including industrial sites. That way you put the burden on what you don’t want instead of driving out middle- and lower-income residents, on whom any healthy city depends. This would encourage delinquent property owners to either sell or develop the land. It would also meet the needs of developers to be able to provide high-quality housing for a thirsty middle- and lower-income market.

And finally, the city can get out of the way. I’m not saying the city shouldn’t enforce regulations, but they should definitely improve and streamline them, making them easier to comply with. Then the city would gain jobs and lots and lots of development would take place, which would be better than the piecemeal development that we’re seeing.

8:21 PM  
Blogger life out of balance said...

"Hey...the poor still have the 200,000 homes in the NE left to destroy..that will take years."

These poor people you speak up have more life, more community, more spirit for living and sustaining themselves than most people who have their nice, well kept houses anywhere in the city. They know everyone in their neighboorhood, they watch out for eachother, they walk everywhere and dont complain about it, they make the best of what they have and when they dont have enough, they GROW their own food. How many people in center city would take the initiative to do that without an insane amount of complaining first? And when there is too much food for one family, they share it. Nevermind that most of this food is being grown in contaminated soil. Its all they have.

It not them that you should be blaming for the state of north philly. Its the government who thinks that the area is unfixable and is patiently waiting for the rich while folks to move farther north and fix everything for them.

And there lies the problem. If they fix up their houses with the little money they do have, then richer people move in, fix everything up, taxes become unaffordable, and then they have to leave. Its a cycle that has to be stopped. Dont blame the people who are born into this situation. Its not as easy as you think.

If anyone wants to help do something about this problem instead of complain about it, look up the APM (Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha) who are doing wonders for north philly with little resources.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Stephen Lauf said...

The house next door to me has been for sale since Easter, and the price was just reduced from $139,000 to $135,000. The block is now predominantly Black with an international mix.

Local attractions include a quondam Lenni-Lenape summer solstice celebration site (later the origin point of Olney), as well as a quondam Lenni-Lenape camp site. There are also substantial remains of a 1813 stone barn nearby at the newly replanted Cedar Grove (guess whose idea that was).

Plus, the house is next to the first Virtual Museum of Architecture and Museumpeace.

Reenact Gertrude Stein and "get it while it's cheap."

1:42 PM  
Anonymous soffit said...

Magnolia Bakery is one of those quirky, independent "destination" storefronts that encourages you to walk from Location A to get there, discovering who knows what along the way. Philadelphia could do with a few more of those off the well-trodden Walnut Street, etc. paths.

No one has mentioned Street's "if you tear it down, they will come" policy that creates neighborhood-killing gaps on city streets and reduces the value of every house on the street.

And how is it that so many of us think we know what needs to be done, and yet change is so slow in coming? Where's the pressure on City Hall? Is there enough citizen activism? What will bring positive change?

10:28 PM  

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